- The period of European thought characterized by the emphasis on experience and reason, mistrust of religion and traditional authority, and a gradual emergence of the ideals of liberal, secular, democratic societies. In England the movement can be discerned in the 17th century with the writings of Francis Bacon and Hobbes, and in France with the new emphasis on unaided reason in the work of Descartes . But the 18th century saw the full flourishing of the Enlightenment, especially in France (see Encyclopédie ), Scotland (see Hume, Smith ), and Germany, where the critical philosophy of Kant is both a kind of culmination, but also a portent of the succeeding Romantic period. Although it is difficult to find positive doctrines common to all these thinkers, the Enlightenment is associated with a materialist view of human beings, an optimism about their progress through education, and a generally utilitarian approach to society and ethics. However, the Constitution of the United States, which is not a utilitarian document but one based on an ethic of natural rights, is frequently cited as a concrete embodiment of Enlightenment ideals. See also perfectibility, optimism and pessimism.
Philosophy dictionary. Academic. 2011.